Reclaimed Land: Australian Urbanisation and Poetry

By | 1 December 2014

In its incantatory quality, Mudrooroo’s poem does not enact or emulate the character of Brisbane city; rather, it adopts the voice(s) of a force that drives human nature. It takes an ancient view of the city’s site, a view in which the decisions both to construct Brisbane and to ‘move on’ are foretold.

6. They are drilling under the grass circle

In his article, ‘The City and the Australian Contemporary Long Poem’, David McCooey states that, ‘you can’t step into the same city twice’.1 This philosophy of the city aptly describes the urbanised poetics of the texts I’ve alluded to so far, scenes in which the present eats itself. As McCooey goes on to explain, this literary representation of urbanism has long been associated with a modernist affect of shock. What, though, do we make of the post-present condition that is repeatedly inhabited in these poems? Do they, in fact, represent varying conditions of post-shock?

Before and after them all, lies Laurie Duggan’s book-length poem, The Ash Range (1987). We could describe its tone and structure as one of post-shock; in this case, one specifically linked to the movement of people over ground. Whilst the modern or postmodern city-scape is superficially absent from Duggan’s poem, The Ash Range forms a long, deep margin to urban settlement – like the way that its subject, the Gippsland region of Victoria, inhabits the topographical margin from the south-east coast to the Victorian Alps.

From that margin, over a couple of hundred years, Duggan watches cities come and go. One early part of The Ash Range shows an Indigenous city on New Years Day, 1798, as glimpsed by explorer George Bass:

There were many large smokes behind the beach,
as we conjectured by the sides of the lagoons, of which
there was reason to believe the back country was

But, racing forward in time, Duggan’s poem doesn’t step into the same big smoke twice.3 By 1826, he presents a pre-contact settlement as ‘untenanted/ wastes’. By 1862, Duggan tells us, the police station at Bull Town had closed; the colonial ‘tenants’ having dispersed themselves into anarchy.4

Post-shock, the poem hangs above the present. It runs before and after the city. Gippsland-born poet Dan Disney revisits the region in a 2011 sequence, ‘Smalltown études’. In one of the poems, ‘Ensay’, the current town is evidence of a departed city: ‘it’s the unquiet that is a landmark’.5

7. Ur-urban

Perhaps the suburban mode is urbanisation’s most recognisable impact on poetry written in Australia. From πø and Jennifer Maiden, to Alan Wearne and Dorothy Porter, Ben Frater and Lachlan Brown, its critical territory is well-mapped and its poetic ground has a constantly extending horizon.

The suburban condition harbours the potential for gothic horror because of its own uncanny property: at once signifying the apparent fringe-ness of undeveloped land and the human drama of domesticity. Although most Australian suburbs appear to sprawl further and further over unsettled ground, they are, of course, built in ruins. Then the gothic mannerism flees and we are left with plain old horror: ‘Tens of thousands of shellfish corpses piled as remembered conversations, banquets, a minimal architecture, an opera house of ears or echoes’.6

8. To be misunderstood

The uncanny requires a division between inside/outside: the interior (homely and bodily) and the elements. In downtown Hanoi, by contrast, there doesn’t seem to be a space where this affect could dwell. Domestic life is tipped out onto the streets, where food vendors cook their kids’ dinner whilst taking orders from the public, and somebody’s uncle watches television beside the cà phê drinkers. The city is unpacked in the morning, unfolded across the pavement, then rolled up and stowed after dark.

In the poetry of Nguyen Tien Hoang, an imperial tradition such as the gothic is built over with a more contemporary sensibility of urban existence. Vietnamese-born, Nguyen’s poems are located in a city of the mind, certainly Australian and certainly Vietnamese. As Michael Brennan puts it, they call ‘the nature of origins into endless question’.7 There, man-made surfaces are already transparent or open, as in the ‘The Tower’ (2013):

The erect mega-ruin, the impenetrable
Monument in decay
Time-wasting-rotting concrete

I stood looking at your face
Beehive of porous holes
Airborn catacombs
Humans were once
In them
Raised children
Told stories
Made love
Cooked meals
Dreamed making fortunes
Fought evictions
Fought among themselves
Waited and shed tears
Closed the eyes of the dead

Wrote something
To be misunderstood8

The decaying monument: so Romantic in Charles Harpur’s poetry, so threatening of the homely space; yet newly characterised by Nguyen as a lyric personality – ’your face’. In his poem, the human construction is not something that rests upon or decays into the more-than-human ground. Rather, it is both dead and alive, a nest and a catacomb. This image demonstrates Gig Ryan’s suggestion that, ‘Vietnamese, like Chinese and many South East Asian languages, has only one tense, and this may inform Hoang’s poems that swing through time, where the past has equal agency, and everyday banter wrestles with transcendence.’9

‘The Tower’ is either composed or translated in the English past tense, which amplifies the poem’s imagery of loss. But towards the end its imagery floats, Casper-like, up and away (‘Prayed/ Cursed’) from the building and into the imaginary act of writing. The poem’s imagery of construction/deconstruction seems to solidify into the poem itself. At once disintegrating and ‘impenetrable’: the tower block is an organism without an ecology, and the poem is a communication that describes its own failure.

A monument to the memory of urbanisation appears again in Nguyen’s ‘Thursday April 21.10 Canberra’, which is discussed by Ryan. This poem also lifts and turns from its grounded beginnings, ‘piles up to an almost deracinated finale, or catastrophe … where sentences crack apart, resembling the narrator’s dislodgement.’ Canberra, already a semi-urban city, is scattered about in the poem and figured as a fire-based settlement, ‘left overnight, burnt to ground, wisps’. This image, a reference to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy at Old Parliament House – called ‘Old People’s House’ in the poem, either as a returning of the site to its traditional owners, or a dismissal of a geriatric government – is redemptive. Fire transports the speaker to ‘my father’s ghost’, and thence to ‘lush waves of wild grass rolling’. And it takes them further, to another inland place: the Mediterranean ‘of islands and archipelagos and the upturned seas’:

bathed in a hologram, sun washing over years and feet
held in caring hands, then
cut, roped, shifted, hanged up, nailed, in, out, under, over
dirt  –  warm, ever so, breathing11

In land, there is sea; in the civic centre, crucifixion. Undoubtedly, Nguyen’s poem makes these dualities beautiful, even meditative. His poem is made of superposed layers, like unquiet voices. As Nguyen explains:

… it seems like one language is watching the other when I write . . . in terms of process, as [English words] are about to appear, I often find almost simultaneously a call which comes from a train of thoughts, a string of sounds in Vietnamese, that would like to break in, to shuffle and diffuse – as if trying to create a field of echoes around the original words that are now more open, more vulnerable, more ready to skip a step or two. There seems to be a hybrid colouring, shading in the formations.12

I like to think of ‘shading’ used here as a noun: chiaroscuro loitering in the foundations of the city, like echoes do. Nguyen expresses a comfort with this ‘diffuse’ state. It’s the little wedge of shadow cast by a stump of concrete. Its presence offers shelter, its texture and depth break the surface of the city.

  1. McCooey, David, ‘The City and the Australian Contemporary Long Poem’, JASAL: Australian Writing and the City 1999, p122
  2. Duggan, Laurie, The Ash Range, Sydney: Picador, 1987, p29.
  3. Duggan, p33.
  4. Duggan, p121.
  5. Disney, Dan, and then when the, Melbourne: John Leonard Press, 2011, p10.
  6. Mateer, John, ‘Visiting the Site of a Shell Midden’, The west, Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Press, 2010, p112.
  7. Brennan, Michael, ed. ‘Nguyen Tien Hoang’, Poetry International
  8. Nguyen Tien Hoang, ‘The Tower’, Peril 17 (December 2013)
  9. Ryan, Gig, ‘On the writing of Nguyen Tien Hoang’, Poetry International
  10. Ryan (n. p.).
  11. Nguyen Tien Hoang, ‘Thursday April 21. Canberra’, in Aitken, Adam, Boey, Kim Cheng, Cahill, Michelle, eds. Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann, 2012, p175.
  12. Nguyen Tien Hoang, qtd. in Brennan (n. p.).
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